Here is a scenario I encounter almost every week: if someone finds out that I am a professional musician, then they will tell me what instrument they used to play. If they’ve never played, they might continue on by saying what instrument they wished they could play. Then I respond with the adage “it’s never too late to start” and it is the truth.
I always offer positive encouragement to adults to get involved with music again because it is so healthy and rewarding for everyone of all ages. If you take your kids to music lessons, why not take yourself? For a lot of adults, playing a musical instrument can be as refreshing and 'good for you' as a trip to the salon or the gym.
Here are some tips and possibilities for adults who want to add playing a musical instrument to their busy lives.
Pick the instrument you would love to play
If you have never played an instrument before, you really have to go with your heart first and worry about the obstacles as they come. Let your interests guide you to the instrument you want to play. Each family of instruments can be enjoyable for the adult beginner and they all have challenges to tackle if you want to learn how to play. Don’t let these obstacles hold you back from pursuing what you want to do. Pick the instrument you would love to play and you will be more likely to pick it up and play it!
Let’s start with the voice. The voice is an instrument many adults would like to learn. The desire and motivation to learn to sing can be quite obvious; it seems like everyone has a favorite singer that makes them want to sing out loud, too. Singing is one of the most natural expressions we have as human beings and it is quite possibly the first form of vocal communication, predating spoken language. It is an intrinsic part of our existence. Which means it should be an easy thing for anyone that can speak to be able to sing.
A lot of adult beginners gravitate to the guitar. They watch their favorite guitarists for years and finally get the urge to try it. It is a fun path to head down and not terribly expensive to start. A good acoustic or electric guitar can be purchased for less than $200 and they don’t take a great deal of maintenance or special care. It is an easy instrument to transport and lately it’s gotten even easier. There are guitars that you can literally fit into your suitcase that feel and sound as good as a full size guitar. People who travel a lot love these smaller guitars and with your headphones on you can practice all day and hardly be heard in the room.
If you are a busy parent, the guitar can be great way to start learning music. It doesn’t take up much space, the volume can be controlled and it just might become a great piece of “me time” in your life. And the guitar offers a bit of instant gratification, too. A lot of the chord shapes are relatively easy to do with your fingers. If you can learn twelve chords and get the the concept of strumming the strings to a steady beat you can literally play thousands of songs (which might be a bridge to start singing, too!). And don’t forget the option of bass guitar. I have an adult student that started playing the bass from scratch and in about three months he was playing in a rock ensemble with other adult learners.
Drums can be a tempting choice for adults, too. If you played the drums in school chances are you would give anything to start playing again. Or maybe you’ve never played before but find yourself “air drumming” to your favorite Rush song. I bump into people all the time who have played the drums or simply love the sound.
The obvious obstacle to playing the drums is where to play the drums. Where do you put a drum kit? You start thinking, “What will the people that live around me think when they hear this?” Nowadays there are some solutions. Electronic drum kits have vastly improved since they were introduced on the consumer level in the 1980’s. These kits range in price from $600 to $2000, depending on the size and the capabilities. Though electronic drums still make a sound when you hit them it is far less volume than an acoustic kit.A professional level electronic drum kit cranked up in your headphones will literally sound like you’re in the proverbial concert hall from that Rush tune we just alluded to above.
Keep in mind that if you do have the space in your home and no volume restrictions an acoustic drum kit can be put together for under $1000. Hitting a real set of drums can be very cathartic! Once you try it you’ll know what Todd Rundgren meant when he wrote the song Bang The Drum All Day.
[Image above by Photographer Gavin Whitner]
Piano is a great choice for adult beginners. Digital pianos and keyboards have made bringing a piano into the home affordable without sacrificing too much of the real piano experience. If you spin the clock back a hundred years practically every family had a piano in their home. It was the center of family entertainment before the radio and television moved into the parlor. A digital piano can be added to your home for less than the price of the TV in the living room.
I bought a very good Yamaha digital piano for my kids several years ago from a neighbor for $300. A brand new digital piano with weighted action keys that simulate the feel of an acoustic piano are available for around $600. Obviously the more you spend the better they get but it is okay to start with an introductory instrument.
The musical challenge of the piano is trying to absorb its vast capabilities. It is one of the few instruments that can play bass, chords, harmony, and melody all at the same time with only one person playing it. Can an adult beginner get to that level of skill? If they have plenty of time to practice they can.
A lot of adult learners approach beginning the piano like they would on the guitar. If you learn some common chord shapes and get a sense of rhythm in hitting them you can have a lot of enjoyment without reading a note of music. If you can learn to read music on the piano there are countless songs that have been published on paper and online that you can learn to play.
The string family isn’t the most common choice, but I have seen adult beginners begin here. Just drawing the bow across the strings of a violin or cello can be a very compelling experience. There are starter string instruments available in the same price range as other beginner instruments but this family can get remarkably expensive. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about violins worth millions of dollars, often left in a cab in New York!
The string family includes the violin, viola, cello, or double bass. If you keep up with it many towns and cities have community orchestras that adults can join, which can be a rewarding experience.
Finally, let’s talk about the wind instruments, which are separated into brass and woodwinds. The brass family includes the trumpet, trombone, French Horn, tuba, and several others. The challenge for adult learners on brass instruments is the embouchure, which is the shape you make with your mouth when you play a wind instrument. The trumpet embouchure can be physically demanding and tough to maintain. Professional brass players have to deal with stamina issues all the time. If you want to play brass you have to be able to commit to a regular routine of playing and practicing. A week off can feel like a month!
The woodwind family isn’t as demanding physically and includes the flute, clarinet, saxophone, oboe, bassoon, recorder, and dozens of other instruments. Most of the woodwinds (with the exception of the flutes) use a reed and you have to replace them regularly, like changing the strings on a guitar. The brass and woodwind instruments can be a bit loud when you practice, so you might face some of the same restrictions that you would with the drums. If you stick with it there can be a lot of fun ways to get involved with performing, maybe with a small ensemble or a community band or orchestra.
Overcome the obstacles
Soon after you begin, the obstacles appear. First are the obstacles in your mind. You’ve always wanted to sing, but everyone told you that you didn’t sound good. You’re too shy to sing in front of people. You feel like you would join a chorus or choir but you wouldn’t know how to fit in. You think that people have to be given a voice a birth and if you didn’t get it you never will. These are the mental obstacles everyone faces first.
Once you get past the mental obtacles there are the physical obstacles - learning breath control, enunciation, pitch, and many other concepts. These are skills that can be learned with regular guidance from a teacher that can provide a space for you to try out your voice and learn how to control it. And I used the word “skills” because these are concepts that can be learned. You don’t have to have innate talent. The voice can be one of the most satisfying instruments for the adult student to learn and no purchase is necessary, it is inside of you already!
It's worth the journey!
Adding music to your busy schedule as an adult is very similar to adding exercise. It can be a bit challenging to get started at first. Once you get started you need regularly scheduled time and effort to see results.
Do you need a tremendous investment of time? Not necessarily - you just need frequent time. If you can grab a musical instrument or simply use your voice to sing once a day, you will soon discover how good music can make you feel and how much positive energy it can bring to you and those around you.
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